A bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers told U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings yesterday that it is "imperative" that the state be given more flexibility in implementing the federal No Child Left Behind law.
With classes starting in several weeks, seven legislators sent Spellings a letter contending that the law has jeopardized progress Virginia schools have made under the state's Standards of Learning testing regimen and asking her to intervene to improve the situation.
If lawmakers do not see action, the General Assembly next year could consider withdrawing from the federal program, which might mean forgoing $350 million in federal funding, two of the letter's authors said in a conference call with reporters.
"We've talked until we're blue in the face with the U.S. Department of Education folks, but we haven't seen a lot of action," said Del. R. Steven Landes (Augusta), chairman of the House Republican caucus.
Landes said the letter was an attempt to "work through the system" to loosen the law's strictures, and he said lawmakers would look to the federal response, as well as an analysis of the law's costs to be completed in October, to determine future action.
The letter, which was written with help from a national organization lobbying for changes in the law, intensifies pressure on Spellings as she faces protests nationwide from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
A spokesman for the department said it works closely with states on requests for flexibility but will not approve changes that violate law's core principles.
"When we see children that need help and we see the federal government is willing to provide millions of dollars to help those kids achieve, we think it'd be unwise for a state to forgo those funds," spokesman Chad Colby said.
The federal law calls for yearly testing of students in grades 3 through 8 and requires that schools show yearly progress in improving scores or face consequences.
Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities, disabled students and students with limited English skills -- also must make progress each year, and all students must pass math and reading tests by 2014.
Negotiations have been underway since January between Virginia's Board of Education and the federal department to loosen certain restrictions imposed by the law. Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (Arlington), chairman of the Senate's Democratic caucus, said state officials have been frustrated because they feel that federal regulators have been slow in responding.
"That's one reason the legislators have put together this letter on a bipartisan basis," she said, "to say, 'Please, respond to us.' "
Virginia's board has lodged 14 requests for adjustments to the law's complicated rules for testing students and judging schools, many of them related to the testing of disabled students and immigrants learning English. Five requests have been rejected; three others were deferred for further study. Five have been formally approved, and Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said state officials have received informal notice in recent days that one more is likely to be approved.
State officials are scheduled to release test results by the end of this month.